A few weeks ago, advertising executive Deng Tee used Facebook to disclose an incident of sexual harassment involving another advertising executive.
Tee’s revelation set off an avalanche of chain events. Other women have shared similar incidents of sexual harassment involving the same advertising executive. Separately, women also shared their own experiences of sexual harassment – either as a witness or as a victim-survivor – involving various men in the advertising industry.
The accused responded by slapping Tee with a libel suit.
Advertising regulator 4As has hired women’s rights group Gabriela to investigate and provide a “safe space” for women to report sexual misconduct in the workplace.
Speaking of the women who have come forward in the preliminary stages of their investigation, Gabriela’s general secretary, Joms Salvador, said the rampant sexualization culture in the advertising industry has long been concealed.
How did we get here and where are we going?
Tee’s experience is another case of sexual misconduct made public on social media. Nearly four years after #MeToo went from a hashtag to a movement that sparked years of pent-up silence and revealed just how rampant sexual violence is, cases of sexual misconduct continue to surface on the networks social. This is what it tells us about the cultural intersections of sexualization, impunity, and the patriarchal systems that allow it.
- In a culture of sexualization, sexual harassment and misconduct have long been normalized.
Gabriela’s discovery of a culture of sexualization is an affirmation of what we already know.
Currently, a multitude of sectors have been rocked by allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct: music, arts and literature, academic institutions and key government policy-making institutions such as the National Authority for Economic Development and Development (NEDA).
We have become familiar with this cycle: public revelation followed by public outrage. Peripheral social reactions that include victim-blaming and bitch-shaming, distancing or defending the accused, and casual men who feel that standing up for women’s rights requires a fair statement that they don’t have never been tainted with accusations of sexual misconduct.
Two things are missing in this cycle. One is an apology or some similar form of remorse on the part of those accused or implicated. To be clear, this is not to confuse an apology with an admission of guilt, but rather an act of contrition – an acknowledgment of introspection and reflection.
Second, any concrete change or response. In one government office, for example, the sexual harassment complaint was still “under review” when the accused reported for mandatory retirement.
Instead, we see a hostile environment where victim-survivors face retaliation in the form of reprimands or libel suits. The institutions involved issue superficial statements about motherhood to assuage and muzzle public outrage, but do little to advance the means to eliminate the sexualization, sexism and misogyny that are so deeply embedded in our everyday life that we have come to see it as normal.
Consumer Research Think Tank Mili.eu interrogates 4,000 working professionals in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines and found that at least three-quarters of respondents in all countries except Singapore had experienced workplace sexual harassment in over the past five years.
Of the various forms of sexual harassment and misconduct, jokes of a sexual nature were the most common. However, the research also indicated high responses for “prefer not to say”.
These work experiences amplify what we see and experience on a daily basis. The catcalling in the streets of strangers. Obscene comments justified as “jokes” by colleagues, relatives and friends. The physical and verbal violation of our personal space in a sexually charged way that is intended to intimidate, cause discomfort, or assert power and superiority over another.
- Many who have been harassed feel that reporting incidents of sexual misconduct would be futile.
The number of revelations on social media should make us wonder why people, most of whom are women, are forced to go public with their pain and shame on social media.
For many victim-survivors, punitive action is not always the end goal.
“Just being able to talk about their experience is enough…and if in the process they could help other victims or potential victims of reported sexual harassment – for them (victim-survivors) that is already enough” , explained Salvador in an interview with the specialized publication Campaign Asia.
Those seeking legal remedies or concrete action know that uneven application and understanding of laws will make the fight haphazard.
By law, the Philippine National Police (PNP) should have a women’s bureau in every precinct. But, as we saw from the “anti-rape” posters they produced, the PNP is not above blaming the victims.
The same environment the research I cited earlier showed that victims most often turn to their friends to talk about their experiences of workplace sexual harassment. For those who did not report incidents, the most common reasons included the belief that no action will be taken and that the lack of physical evidence will not work in their favor.
- Sexual morality is a duty for women. For men, it’s a choice.
Many well-meaning companies talk about having workplace policies that foster a culture of family. However, a “family culture” is not a deterrent to sexual misconduct, gender discrimination and abuse of women and people of diverse gender identities.
Sexual violence lurks in the chasms of power and strikes in the dark recesses of impunity.
Businesses, academic institutions, and government institutions should invest in programs to educate members of their organizations about behaviors that constitute sexual misconduct, aspects of consent and bodily autonomy, and principles of gender inclusion. .
4A’s engagement with Gabriela is a positive start to unraveling normalized gendered behaviors and forming interventions that recognize and understand the needs of victim-survivors. However, I would say that to unlearn the sexualized norms that have allowed harassment to exist, you have to go beyond writing policies.
Sexual harassment is constant and pervasive. What is needed is the constant and consistent operationalization of these interventions through proactive dissemination and education.
Finally, we cannot allow the prevalence of sexual harassment to be used as an excuse to control women’s sexuality. Women, people who identify as women, and people of diverse gender identities all have the right to express their sexuality and to determine their personal choices based on their own morality – that autonomy of choice and that right of consent – that’s what sexual violence takes away from them.
Until that happens, sexual morality will remain a duty only for women and simply a choice for men. And social media will remain one of the limited places of judgment. – Rappler.com
Ana P. Santos is an award-winning journalist who reports on the sexuality, sexual health and labor of migrant women. She is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in Gender (Sexuality) at the London School of Economics and Political Science as a Chevening Scholar. Follow her on Twitter: @iamAnaSantos and Facebook SexandSensibilities.com